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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Kim Jong-un open to discussing weapons programme: Chinese news agency

Beijing is just the start of Mr Kim's coming out party

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju walking with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan during their meeting in China. According to the North Korean media, Kim Jong-un visited China from 25 to 28 March at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping. EPA / KCNA
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju walking with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan during their meeting in China. According to the North Korean media, Kim Jong-un visited China from 25 to 28 March at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping. EPA / KCNA

After six years of seclusion, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems to want to get out and see the world.

China confirmed Mr Kim's surprise summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping on Wednesday - the first time he'd traveled outside of his country since he assumed power in 2011, according to his own state media.

With smiles and firm handshakes, the two countries used the summit to show that Pyongyang still has a powerful backer and Beijing will not be sidelined in discussions about the North's fate.

Although North Korea's reports made no mention of denuclearization, China's official Xinhua News Agency said that Mr Kim appeared open to discussing his weapons programme with President Donald Trump in their planned May summit.

Mr Trump on Wednesday said that Chinese president Xi Jinping was pleased with the meeting.

Mr Kim might "do what is right for his people and for humanity. Look forward to our meeting!" tweeted Mr Trump. Adding: “in the meantime, and unfortunately, maximum sanctions and pressure must be maintained at all cost”.

Indeed Beijing is just the start of Mr Kim's ambitious coming out party.

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Next is a meeting just south of the Demilitarized Zone with South Korean president Moon Jae-in - symbolically, it's a huge step forward.

Mr Moon and his liberal government have been taking the initiative to reach out to the North after a year of escalating missile launches and angry rhetorical barrages. Mr Kim extended an olive branch of his own in January, vowing to make improved relations one of his top priorities for the year.

Until Mr Kim showed up in Beijing, it appeared Mr Moon would be his first summit partner.

While that somewhat blurs the focus on North-South detente, the emotional story line of Korean nationalism and the hope of reunification is still bound to play well with Mr Kim's domestic audience. North Korea is working on several development projects that appear aimed at boosting South Korean tourism to its east coast.

Then in May the trickiest meeting of all, with President Donald Trump in an as-yet undisclosed location. The big question remains denuclearization.

Mr Kim has been using it a lot recently, and some officials in Washington have interpreted that to mean he might be willing to negotiate away his costly and hard-won nuclear arsenal. But another interpretation is that he means a process that would involve all 30,000-plus US troops permanently withdrawing from the South and a slew of security guarantees culminating in a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.

The North Korean leader is also rumored to be considering a sit-down with Russia's Vladimir Putin, while one of his staunchest critics, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, says he wants some face time, too.

Closer relations with Russia are important as a balance against Chinese influence and a buffer against Washington and its allies. Mr Putin is certainly wary of encouraging a nuclear-armed neighbour, cozying up with Mr Kim would be a way of thumbing his nose at the West.